One of the most exciting up-and-coming technologies today is 3D printing. If it sounds like science fiction, that is because, in many ways, it is. The technique builds 3D objects, layer by layer, through a variety of methods. At its most basic level, imagine a hot glue gun that can move on two horizontal axes, as well as vertically, squirting small drops of glue to build up an object one layer at a time. More complex types of 3D printing use powder that is solidified by an ink jet printer head loaded with binding material, or even a solution of liquid resin that is solidified by a laser beam.
The technology itself is not new; indeed, it has been around since the 1980s, and, up until recently, it was more commonly known as rapid prototyping. It is a form of additive manufacturing, which is distinct from the more common subtractive manufacturing since instead of taking a block of material and removing mass to shape an object, it starts with nothing, and adds material to create the object.
Recently, due to an explosion of consumer-level interest in the technology, 3D printing has been getting serious mainstream attention. The darling and established market leader of the consumer 3D printing movement, MakerBot, started selling DIY 3D printer kits in 2009, and has expanded rapidly, receiving a $10 million venture capital investment from the Foundry Group in August 2011. Since then, the company has released two versions of its Replicator line of 3D printers aimed at the “prosumer” market, and opened the first 3D printing retail store in Manhattan. Between 2009 and 2011, the company’s printers accounted for 16% of the market; in 2011 alone they accounted for 21.6%.
The largest players in the field are 3D Systems and Stratasys. They are established public companies with diversified operations that cover medical, industrial, architectural, design prototyping, and 3D scanning. Both have been aggressively acquiring smaller companies to build out their technology portfolios and move into new markets. 3D Systems is the overall market leader in terms of revenue ($288.9 million as of June 2012) and grew by 41.7% and 44.1% in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Stratasys comparatively, achieved revenue of $177.9 million for the same period.
In addition to making and selling hardware, a market has emerged around providing 3D print services. Shapeways and Ponoko are two companies occupying this space, both have established online marketplaces (similar to eBay or Esty), where designers upload 3D designs that can be ordered for prototyping purposes or purchased directly by their customers. The companies handle the 3D printing and shipping, eliminating the need for designers to ever touch the product, or invest in the high-end 3D printing equipment that is used.
The ever increasing level of press that 3D printing technology has been receiving has its own dangers. Gartner placed the technology at the peak of its 2012 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, predicting that overinflated expectations of what is technologically possible will lead to a slump in the market, before eventual slow but steady growth emerges as practical applications are found.
The attention the technology is receiving is considerable; it seems that not a day goes by without a major publication covering some aspect of the industry, including a series of stories about the potential (good headline material but overblown) to manufacture a gun in your home using the technology. Potential applications that earn headlines include printing organs, mass copyright and patent violations, the death of the global supply chain, printing in space, etc, etc, etc. The list is endless, but many of these use cases are years away from being viable.
Nonetheless, the future of 3D printing is bright (perhaps literally so, as Disney research has developed a way to print optics in light bulbs). A reality check on the limitations of the technology and an adjustment of expectations may be in order, but have no doubt; 3D printing will be one of the great technology storylines for years to come.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex. He can be reached at email@example.com